Return to society can trigger ‘re-entry anxiety’
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/08/2021 (525 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
With school about to begin and much of society reopening to various degrees, Diana Leslie is experiencing something new — re-entry anxiety.
The speech language pathologist and mother of two children under the age of five is finding her COVID-19-related anxiety is always “bubbling under the surface.”
The vast majority of kids she works with in a rural school division are under 12, so they’re not able to get vaccinated.
“I’ve never had anxiety about anything that actually stopped me from going outside or stopped me from certain social interactions,” she says. “I want to take my daughter to do things so that she can have fun and be a kid, but also not compromise her safety or put her in situations where she’s around people who are unvaccinated.”
“Re-entry anxiety” is essentially the stress people feel getting back to normal life. Maybe your office is reopening, or you’re about to travel for the first time since 2019. You’re excited, but also a bit terrified.
The anxiety comes from worries about a heightened risk of infection, new social expectations and the adjustment of routines to new work realities, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
It might be hard to flip the switch from “avoid everyone” to “we can socialize again.” Whether you were already socially anxious pre-pandemic or you’re developing social anxiety after being in isolation, the idea of returning to society can be daunting.
It’s all causing restless nights for Leslie.
“I’ve definitely lost a lot of sleep over the course of this pandemic due to anxiety about rising cases and what that means for my unvaccinated kids,” she says. “I’m (working) somewhere where (the vaccination rate) is lower. Part of my anxiety is that I’d feel a lot less anxious if the vaccination rate was in the 80 per cent range, like it is in Winnipeg.”
This will be Leslie’s first time in a school since the pandemic began. She was pregnant and working from home and has been on maternity leave since.
“I’ve been very much in control of who I’ve been around since March of 2020 because my mat leave let me skip the majority of the pandemic,” she says. “I can handle some sniffles or a cold but that’s not what I’m worried about. It’s about passing on that dangerous (delta) variant to my kids who can’t be vaccinated. The pandemic is sucking all the fun out of going back to work.”
It was recently announced that employees in Manitoba who work with vulnerable people, including teachers and early childhood educators, will have to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 31 or undergo regular testing. The announcement came as a relief to Leslie.
“I think that this is a really prudent step to help make sure that school is as safe as it can be,” she says. “Having kids attend school full time and have it be as normal as possible really does hinge on masks and vaccines, so it’s nice to see them actually putting those policies in place.”
When the province announced the lifting of the mask mandate in early August, Leslie’s heart sank.
“I went to go get some back-to-work clothing for myself (at the mall) and I did fine until I saw multiple unmasked families and I left without buying anything,” she says.
The province has since announced it’s mandating masks once again in indoor public places, including schools.
“(Mandating masks) definitely helps alleviate my anxiety. My mask does more to protect the people around me than it does to protect me,” she says. “It’s mandated that we all protect each other.”
It’s natural to feel anxious and have a degree of social dysfunction after living through a year-and-a-half of a global pandemic. Things people used to do on a regular basis — seeing friends, carpooling, talking to strangers, spending time with co-workers — have become anxiety-provoking for some.
Over the coming weeks and months, many of us will return to many pre-pandemic activities, assuming more restrictions are lifted. However, some of us may be reluctant to leave the house, a condition called “cave syndrome.” It’s not a formal diagnosis but a symptom of anxiety.
“For a long time, we heard about avoiding public places so, naturally, we will have some anxiety with public places because we are not back to normal and the pandemic is still a reality for us,” says Sophia Ali, a social worker and executive director of the Aulneau Renewal Centre, a counselling centre in Winnipeg. “For people who have social anxiety, the interactions may increase this for them. Many of them found safety and security by avoiding social interactions and the reopening may increase their anxiety.”
Like Leslie, more and more parents are feeling torn between the guilt of having their kids miss out on activities and worrying about COVID risks. Leslie feels stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to outings with her daughter.
“After you’ve watched (your kid) sit on the couch for months on end watching TV, you feel a tremendous amount of guilt over that,” she says. “I don’t want my anxiety to stop her from experiencing fun things but, at the same time, I don’t want these fun things to make her sick.”
And when Leslie does say yes to an outing, she feels guilty.
“If my daughter is at the playground, I try to remind myself to keep distance between people. So it’s like, play with this kid, but not too close to this kid. And then explaining it all to a little girl is just so hard,” Leslie says. “What do you tell them? You’re acting like these other kids are a threat to their health, which in a way they are, but in a way they’re not.
“I just wonder what the impact of this anxiety is going to be on her because I’m bound to pass on some of this.”
Parental guilt sets in when she sees friends on social media posting pictures of where they took their kids.
“I feel a lot of guilt. I’ve passed up parties and I know not everybody has done that,” she says. “There are still lots of people who feel comfortable gathering and I’m just like, ‘Why can’t I feel that comfortable?’ Everybody else seems to be able to enjoy themselves and I feel like, ‘Why can’t I?’”
Ali says acknowledging your feelings, focusing on compassion and accepting people with where they are on their journey is key.
“As a mom myself, I can relate to this. There is so much we don’t know about the new delta variant and how our children will be impacted in the fall. Look at what you can control versus what you can’t,” Ali says. “For example, a (parent) can control (their family) wearing masks and where they choose to go. Focus on doing what makes you comfortable and at ease… We can have fun and be safe at the same time. It is important to hold space for your feelings.”
As Leslie begins readjusting back to her regular routine, it’s the “firsts” that may be a little tricky.
“It’s those things that you haven’t done for a year-and-a-half. Like the first time that I was at a friend’s house, that felt weird,” she says. “This past week was my first time shopping for clothes in person, that also felt weird. I think the first that’s probably going to impact me the most will be air travel.”
As you prepare to re-enter the world, your workplace, a social group or your broader community, keep in mind that your emotions are valid.
“It may be beneficial to begin (socializing) with someone you are comfortable with who is understanding of the anxiety and can actually be a support to you,” Ali says.
Try to share with others if you are feeling anxious or afraid because there are likely others who are feeling the same way.
“The most important thing is to do what works for you. For some people, it may be meeting outside where the risk is lower,” she says. “People also need to feel safe to share their challenges with their friends and family without worrying about what others think. Creating safe spaces — physically and emotionally — is important.”
After enduring months of varying levels of lockdown, feeling comfortable in public spaces will take a while. It may be especially challenging for parents of younger children.
As we learn how to navigate re-entry anxiety, many people will still worry about how to socialize safely, how to discuss their comfort level with loved ones or manage pressure to do something they’re not yet ready to do. This will all take time and patience.
“There is no point in saying yes and attending an event with increased anxiety that can be detrimental to your health,” she says.
Getting back into the world may seem like a life-changing transition, just as it was to switch to remote work and hold gatherings over Zoom. Anxiety is slightly different for everyone. Whatever you’re feeling, acknowledge where you are and try to find healthy ways to manage. The last year has wreaked havoc on our emotional lives. The least we can do is be patient with ourselves.
Sabrina Carnevale is a freelance writer and communications specialist, and former reporter and broadcaster who is a health enthusiast. She writes a twice-monthly column focusing on wellness and fitness.